Contributor Ramtin Hakimjavadi
Every now and then, as we scroll through social media or browse the web, we are confronted with a new scientific discovery or some groundbreaking research that captures the imagination. It is difficult to identify what makes certain ideas in science so captivating compared to others, but they are difficult to ignore once they pop up. Indeed, articles about artificial intelligence (AI), gene-editing technologies or space travel rarely fail to gather clicks — and the same goes for “mirror neurons.” More than two decades after their initial discovery, mirror neurons continue to capture the attention of the mainstream audience and fuel passionate discussions in the world of neuroscience. As with all popular scientific concepts in the media, they prompt a deeper exploration into the science behind the notion.
What are mirror neurons?
Imagine reaching out and grasping a cup of water. A mirror neuron would respond similarly when you grasp the cup yourself or when you observe someone else grasp the cup. These neurons fire both when an individual performs an action and when the individual observes someone else perform the same or similar action. These fascinating cells were first discovered in the brains of the macaque monkey in 1992. Through subsequent brain imaging studies, activity consistent with that of mirror neurons were found in several regions of the human brain including the inferior frontal gyrus and the inferior prefrontal gyrus (referred to as the “mirror neuron system”). Their discovery was met with great excitement and enthusiasm. The attention they garnered is evident in both scientific literature and the popular media. One review, by Sourya Acharya and Samarth Shukla, published in The Journal of Natural Science, Biology and Medicine hailed mirror neurons as “one of the most important discoveries in the last decade of neuroscience”. What’s more striking is how often this discovery is referenced or used to explain different phenomena. A quick search on PubMed or Google will yield a seemingly endless list of articles and studies about these neurons in diverse contexts. In many of these cases, there are claims about mirror neurons being the cause, or the underlying explanation, for some scientific mystery such as human empathy and theory of mind. Mirror Neurons in the Scientific Community
There are many theories regarding the role of mirror neurons in human social interaction and other sophisticated human behaviours. In many ways, advanced social cognition is what separates mankind from all other living organisms on Earth. Mirror neurons have been credited as the driving force behind the “great leap forward” in human evolution and the key to understanding social cognition. Much of the enthusiasm surrounding this idea can be attributed to its potential to explain complex human behaviours.
That said, claims about the roles of mirror neurons in human behaviours have been met with skepticism and scrutiny. Professor Gregory Hickok, from the University of California’s Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, argued against some of these popular theories. He highlighted some of the flaws underlying the associations made between mirror neurons and complex human behaviours. First, it is important to realize that mirror neurons have not been conclusively shown to exist in humans, as they have been shown in macaque monkeys. He also points out an interesting paradox in the reasoning used in today’s mainstream mirror neuron theorizing: many uniquely human behaviours not shown in monkeys, such as imitation and empathy, are linked to mirror neuron activity even though humans have not been conclusively shown to possess mirror neurons. According to Hickok, propositions that suggest a relation between the human mirror neuron system and higher order cognitive functions rely too heavily on assumptions and are supported with little empirical data.
As Hickock himself points out, using mirror neurons to guide human research can be meaningful, but the underlying assumptions used in formulating these theories should first be validated — especially when the majority of empirical data on mirror neurons come from the macaque monkey, and not humans.
Mirror Neurons in the Mainstream Media
Wild speculation can be a more exciting exercise than employing some healthy skepticism. The public response to the discovery of mirror neurons over the years serves as an interesting case study for how new scientific discoveries are portrayed by the popular media. As they reach the mainstream, the description of new discoveries or ideas naturally transitions from peer-reviewed research to popular science articles and blogs. And during this transition, scientific ideas are often subject to an overwhelming amount of hype and reductionism. In a viral clip that surfaced early this year, two NBA players were captured moving perfectly in sync as they jumped to steal the ball. Similar instances (i.e., players jumping to defend a shot or bending to tie their shoes in perfect unison) left people searching for a possible explanation. According to an article published in Popular Science, mirror neurons may be the reason for this mysterious synchronization. Input from Marco Iacoboni, an expert on mirror neurons, was used to support this idea. Iacoboni, a psychiatrist at University of California, Los Angeles and long-time advocate for the role of mirror neurons in social cognition, claims that mirror neurons are at the root of this synchronized behaviour (i.e. our brain “mimics” what the other person’s brain is doing). Overall, the story is light-hearted and makes no outlandish claims about the functional significance of mirror neurons. However, it does exemplify the tendency for scientific concepts to be oversimplified in the media. A short and digestible description of mirror neurons is provided in a couple of sentences. Nothing is falsely claimed; however, there is a lot of room for misinterpretation based on the information included in the article, With oversimplification, the findings from the actual research will inevitably be exaggerated and stretched to fit into any context. Regarding mirror neurons specifically, the problem is that the mechanism by which they are proposed to function is relatively intuitive and easy to understand, at least on the surface. It seems that these are the perfect ingredients for hype and reductionism. An oversimplified depiction of mirror neurons is freed from the constraints set by the (currently) limited empirical data to supporting their function in humans. Some suggestions of mirror neuron functions in everyday human activities seem especially ambitious. Forget the experiments testing mirror neuron activity through careful observation of monkeys performing simple grasping tasks. Our mirror neurons are apparently even capable of setting off complex cascades of shopping frenzies. There is no shortage of these overreaching popular science articles. With respect to mirror neurons specifically, rarely is it ever mentioned that conclusive evidence for the presence of these cells in the human brain is yet to be found. It is even harder to find critics of mirror neuron theories being interviewed or featured in blogs. Nevertheless, the discovery of mirror neurons remains a seminal finding in the field of neuroscience. True, there is still a gap between the supporting empirical data and the claims about the neurons’ role in higher social cognitions of humans. Especially as a science student, the discrepancies between the oversimplification of scientific theories in the media and the actual research pop out more than anything.
Maybe the articles in the media could come up with more accurate ways of portraying mirror neurons to the public. It is easy to become frustrated once you learn the true rigours of the scientific method. Perhaps, this is just the natural response to new and exciting scientific discoveries. Whatever the case, one is left absorbing all these wild speculations and awaiting for the next study that will allow the imagination to run even wilder.